How the City of Austin is Combatting Homelessness with Decentralized Digital Identity

Three months ago, Blockchain for Social Impact Coalition Board Member Yorke Rhodes III asked me to join him on a call with Adam Weidmann, the program manager for MyPass – an identity app for people experiencing homelessness in the City of Austin. On the call, Adam shared stories about the people he met during Austin’s investigation into homelessness. Through the city’s two years of research, he developed friendships with people who lost their homes because of their sexualities, mental illnesses, addictions, lack of support systems, service to the country, immigration to the country, etc. Every person’s story was different. The research revealed that there was no clear path to homelessness, but that nonprofit and government service networks could potentially provide pathways out.

Well-intentioned service networks can connect people experiencing homelessness to job opportunities, affordable housing, mental health resources, and healthcare facilities that help people stay safe, build reputations, and accrue wealth. However, using government services requires verifiable government-issued identification. A birth certificate. A social security card. A driver’s license. Pieces of paper that prove you exist.

Living a routine life—owning a car, having a bank account, going to school—makes us more legitimate people in the eyes of the systems that help us survive. So if we lose those pieces of paper, our reputations and our networks help us get them back, reclaim who we are, and leverage help from those systems again.

…if we lose those pieces of paper, our reputations and our networks help us get them back, reclaim who we are, and leverage help from those systems again.

Imagine someone who is living paycheck to paycheck, without a savings account or healthcare. An unexpected trip to the hospital, layoff, or loss of a loved one makes it impossible for them to make their next rent payment. Within weeks, they lose their home. Amidst the upheaval, they have to find and protect the documents that prove they exist. Even if they do have those pieces of paper, they live in a backpack with every other item they own. Their documents experience everything they do: unplanned moves, inclement weather, violence, theft, loss. The only way the government can help them is if they provide the government with those pieces of paper. 

And the cycle continues. Our most vulnerable populationswho face the most challenges acclimating to our sociopolitical systemshave the hardest time re-entering our systems once we reject them.

Our most vulnerable populationswho face the most challenges acclimating to our sociopolitical systemshave the hardest time re-entering our systems once we reject them.

It is hard to understand and break down the structural social and racial inequities that reinforce this cycle, and it is hard to change the government. Changing the government requires education, awareness, urgency, and pressure from every person in the country, and I hope social movements continue to drive that change. But what can we do in the meantime? 

Adam Weidmann and the City of Austin believe moving those pieces of paper from your backpack to your smartphone can make a difference, but building an identity around those documents on a blockchain will make an even bigger difference. Not only will those documents be easier to access and keep track of like they would be using an internet application (I am sure you have heard of Google Docs), but with credentialed blockchain identities, we can begin to break down the systemic inequities in reputation-building that allow the cycle continue. 

Why Use a Blockchain?

At Blockchain for Social Impact Coalition we fuse technology with social impact. Blockchains are protocols, just like the internet is a protocol. You can build applications on the internet or you can build applications on a blockchain – it depends on what you want to do. If you want to build an application that decentralizes data ownership (meaning individual users own their data and can send it across the network to another user), then you should use a blockchain. Using a blockchain will make the data natively more secure than it would be on the internet, and as the users transact (share data), they build reputations and so does their data. The history of their transactions develop their legitimacy on the network, just like real-life transactions do. 

If a person experiencing homelessness has a history of disclosing their data to government caseworkers, service departments, hospitals, etc. then they are developing an immutable reputation that is verified by the entities that validate their data. That reputation will empower them to make claims and requests within systems that typically exclude them, and it will protect them from identity insecurity. If an organization or government tries to take their identity away (which we have seen happen with immigrants in the United States), their digital reputation can protect them.

That reputation will empower them to make claims and requests within systems that typically exclude them, and it will protect them from identity insecurity.

An application built on the internet cannot do that. The entities that make the applications (Facebook, Google, etc.) own and manage their users’ data. As users, we sell our data for the price of using their applications, and they are free to use our data for their profit. We are all vulnerable (and for some, unknowing) participants in the data economy.  

We are all vulnerable (and for some, unknowing) participants in the data economy.  

The City of Austin wants to protect its most vulnerable populations from further digital vulnerability as they connect to government services, so Adam and his team are building MyPass using Web 3.0 tools and blockchain. This project is funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and will be under development until grant-funding is up in November. During the project’s development period, the Blockchain for Social Impact Coalition is advising Adam and his team. We meet with Adam on a weekly basis to discuss the team’s design process, provide feedback, and connect Austin with relevant resourceswhether that’s digital identity experts at Microsoft and Consensys or highly-skilled developers participating in our Decentralized Impact Incubator. Our conversations are often the most rewarding part of my week, largely because of the empathetic ethos of the MyPass design team.

“Anything done about us without us is not for us.”

Since the project’s inception, people experiencing homelessness have driven how MyPass problem-solves. Not only did two years of research reveal that documentation and agency were major challenges for people experiencing homelessness, but participants in the research continue to advise the designers and developers who are building the app addressing those challenges. MyPass users want to be able to view and understand their progress within Austin’s service network. They want to better understand the systems that can help them, and tie their documents and personal development to that process. They want to see their reputation grow. The only way to design for those circumstances is by working with people in those circumstances. MyPass’s designer, Pablo Portilla del Valle, calls this “designing for people, and not social good.” 

To simplify complex government and nonprofit support networks into a User Interface (UI) that suits the needs of people experiencing homelessness, the MyPass team first investigated how their users will log into the MyPass app. They designed a set of wireframes and solicited feedback from their advisory team, who are currently experiencing homelessness. One person could not read in English, another had zero trust in technology, another had no short term memoryhow can each person log in with a conventional username and password? There needs to be many different ways for many different types of people to access the app, without sacrificing the security of every individual’s profile. In the tech world, we call this multi-factor (m of n) login. Currently, there is not a widely accepted implementation of multi-factor authentication for blockchain-based Digital IDs (DID). 

When engineers are building on a protocol as it evolves, solving a technical problem may seem more important than solving the human problem that drove us to innovate in the first place. If we spent as much time thinking about the problems that our users face as we do the problems that we face while engineering, the elegant software solution would emerge from the needs of our users. Building elegant software requires listening to people, understanding their needs, and abstracting their needs into a system that you can implement through existing technology or by developing new technology. If we only solved technical problems when existing technology cannot serve our users’ needs, we would have more socially conscious and effective software.

Building elegant software requires listening to people, understanding their needs, and abstracting their needs into a system that you can implement through existing technology or by developing new technology.

Multi-factor authentication is one of those challengesMyPass cannot exist in practice without it. For years, multi-factor authentication has been framed as a technical problem. MyPass is reframing it as a human problem: we need to design a login system for people who have experienced trauma. What does their user experience need to look like? How can we identify patterns across their different experiences? How can we abstract that into a system? What software can get this done?

We don’t have all the answers yet, but I am looking forward to seeing what this team does. We posed the multi-factor authentication problem as a challenge in the BSIC Decentralized Impact Incubator, and are continually looking to collaborate with software engineers and cities solving the problems we are. I will continue to update you on our progress through BSIC blogposts, and you can follow the City of Austin’s progress on github. In the coming months, the MyPass team will be building out a platform that they will seek to hand off to a foundation or nonprofit for maintenance and growth. The codebase is open-sourced, and municipalities across the country can build custom applications for their constituencies on top of the solution that the MyPass team has set into motion.

2020-03-13T01:24:10+00:00

About the Author:

Mary Dwyer is an Analyst at Reinvestment Fund, a nonprofit with $1.1B of impact investment capital under management. There, she integrates technology into all areas of business to increase access and equity in commercial loan originations for affordable housing, healthcare facilities, schools and other community projects that revitalize neighborhoods across the country. Mary received her Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering from The Cooper Union, where she also served on the Board of Trustees and played an integral role in the school’s financial plan to provide free education to all admitted students. During her time in college, Mary interned for ConsenSys and The Walt Disney Company as a blockchain engineer. In these roles, Mary researched symmetric and asymmetric cryptosystems and their application in blockchains, architected an interoperable electronic health record system for submission to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, and designed an identity system that augments the security and autonomy of user data across Disney and its partner companies. In her time outside of work, Mary studies public finance at the University of Pennsylvania and advises on government and policy projects with the Blockchain for Social Impact Coalition.